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The making of Jay Z’s film ‘The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail’ for the NYT

The animated film entitled A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush was posted on the The New York Times’ Opinion Pages under the headline ‘The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail’. In the film, rapper Jay Z, who co-wrote the script, narrates a history of the ‘war on drugs’ policy that goes back to the Nixon administration and the 1973 ‘Rockefeller drug laws’ which brought a dramatic increase in New York’s prison population.

In short a text accompanying the film, Asha Bandele, a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance highlights one of the central questions in the film – “how African-Americans can make up around 13 percent of the United States population – yet 31 percent of those arrested for drug law violations, even though they use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites.”

Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and Dream Hampton
Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and dream hampton

Bandele writes that in 2015, dream hampton, the filmmaker and co-author of Jay Z’s book Decoded approached the DPA to work with Revolve Impact, the social agency that puts creative artists together with community organisers. Hampton wanted to create “an animated video … about the impact of the drug war in African-American communities.”

Hampton then asked artists Kim Boekbinder and Molly Crabapple, who had made their first animated video I Have Your Heart together in 2010 with the help of Jim Batt, to work on the project – with Hampton and Jay Z providing the script.

“Because we’ve built up our style and our process over the past six years, we’ve gotten very good at communicating and working together seamlessly,” says Boekbinder, who has previously worked with Crabapple and Batt on shorts for RSA, animations to accompany Crabapple’s journalism on Fusion.net and videos for Amnesty International and The Equal Justice Initiative (shown below). “Molly’s illustrations are unique and evocative and Jim and I both have a strong interest in telling the best stories possible,” she says. “We’ve developed a process that works for us and that cannot be duplicated.”

Once a script has been agreed, Boekbinder explains, a storyboarding process follows. “Molly, Jim and I will each do our own separate research and planning and then we meet at Molly’s studio and go over the script beat by beat,” she says, “talking through our visions of what might happen during each bit of narration”. Crabapple takes notes and makes sketches and, over the next few days, produces the storyboard drawings. For the NYT’s ‘war on drugs’ film, the video incorporates layers of pre-drawn elements, Boekbinder explains, and also contains elements suggested by Jay Z and hampton, such as the skier on the mountain of money.

Filming is done in one continuous shot (“we may take breaks, but the set must remain undisturbed and most edits are impossible,” says Boekbinder) with Crabapple working from light sketches made on the paper. “Molly inks and paints and splatters live, on camera,” says Boekbinder. “Each video contains 12-22 pages of finished artwork and can take up to 24 hours of shooting time, resulting in six to eight hours of raw footage. For longer shoots we’ll split the shooting up into two nights, being careful to not disturb anything on the art table – since all the pens and paints that fill the edge of the screen become an important part of the video.”

Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and Dream Hampton
Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and dream hampton

The process is highly collaborative, with Boekbinder and Batt keeping track of the storyboards as the drawings take shape – the pair often suggesting other elements to add into the pictures which Crabapple creates with pen and ink, acrylic paints, watercolour washes and coloured markers.

“Once filming is done, the footage is edited painstakingly – taking out any large movements, such as the refilling of the paint brush, or when Molly reaches for a new pen,” says Boekbinder. “Once these hundreds of motions have been snipped out, the video is then sped up bit by bit, some parts faster, some slower, as the pace of the story dictates. This editing is done so seamlessly that people often think Molly just draws very quickly, or that the video has simply been sped up. Editing takes two to three full weeks.”

Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and Dream Hampton
Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and dream hampton

Normally, while the editing takes place the narration will be recorded in Boekbinder’s own studio – but here, Jay Z provided his own recording. As the film approaches its final stages, Boekbinder works on the sound design and “sonically illustrates” the story using pre-recorded samples and sounds she records herself, along with original music.

From filming to final video takes at least one month of editing, sound design, and rendering, she adds. “What we do looks deceptively simple, yet is slowly crafted over several months. From concept to final video takes three to six months, once we factor in all the approval times.

“When we first started making videos we were strapping tripods to rickety old ladders, using whatever lamps we had handy, and hoping nothing got bumped. In 2015, we had a custom rig built over Molly’s studio desk and invested in professional studio lights. How we’ve grown!”

As for what’s next, Boekbinder says their schedules “are bursting with exciting new projects – none of which we can talk about yet!” Here’s hoping that they only continue to create more work that brings writing, art and filmmaking together to help convey the nuances of another compelling subject.

Script and narration by Shawn Carter. Illustrations by Molly Crabapple. Co-directed by Jim Batt and Kim Boekbinder. Sound Design by Kim Boekbinder. Produced by dream hampton. The film is on the New York Times website at nytimes.com

Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and Dream Hampton
Still from A History of the War on Drugs – From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Kim Boekbinder and dream hampton

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